With Cheating Only a Click Away, Professors Reduce the Incentive

Handheld devices can answer a question—even if a student is home sleeping.

David Massey for The Chronicle

Corey T. Shipeck, a business student at the U. of Florida, takes courses that require two different models of clicker. Some students bring multiple clickers to class to cover for late-sleeping roommates.
September 04, 2011

As soon as the handheld gadgets called "clickers" hit the University of Colorado at Boulder, Douglas Duncan saw cheating.

The astronomy instructor and director of the Fiske Planetarium was observing a colleague's physics class in 2002, when the university introduced the electronic devices that students use to respond to in-class questions. He glanced at the first row and saw a student with four clickers spread out before him. It turned out that only one was his—the rest belonged to his sleeping roommates.

The student was planning to help his absentee classmates by "clicking in" for the sleepers to mark them present. The physics professor had to tell the student that what he was doing was cheating.

Clickers—and the cheating problems that accompany them—have become a lot more common since that day, many instructors say. Today, more than 1,000 colleges in the United States use the devices, which look like TV remotes.

At Boulder alone, about 20,000 clickers are in use among the university's 30,000 students. In addition to using them to take attendance, professors pose multiple-choice questions during class, students click answers, and software instantly projects the responses as charts at the front of the room. Particularly in large classes, that lets instructors assess student comprehension in a matter of seconds.

But the system can be abused. Students purchase remotes and register the devices in their names. Those who choose not to attend large classes can simply ask friends to bring along their clickers and get whatever credit the instructor assigns for showing up.

Derek Bruff, a senior mathematics lecturer at Vanderbilt University and author of a popular guide to clickers, which are formally called student response systems, says he thinks cheating is fairly common; he hears complaints whenever he gives a talk about using the devices. But, he added, educators can take steps to limit wrongdoing and reap the benefits of the technology.

Absent and Accounted For

"It happens in every class," says Corey T. Shipeck, a sophomore studying business at the University of Florida, where classes can exceed 400 students. He says it is typical for students to bring devices to class for absentee friends, recalling when a professor once walked around a classroom taking away clickers from students who had more than one. Mr. Shipeck has two clickers himself, but that's because his courses require different models—his roommate has three.

Mr. Shipeck's experiences with clickers have varied as much as the models themselves. In some classes, professors awarded just a sliver of the grade for participation via clicker, while others penalized students with whole letter-grade reductions when they failed to click in. In some classes, clickers were the only way to participate or to indicate presence. "If you forget your clicker, you can just leave, because it's just not worth it," Mr. Shipeck says. "It's a pain."

Kevin D. Livingston, an associate professor of biology at Trinity University, in Texas, was told by students in his genetics course that other students had used clickers to cheat on homework. Instead of grading assignments individually, he had used clickers to poll students on homework questions in class. He was dismayed to learn that some students had simply shared homework answers during the clicker poll to get credit instead of actually doing the problem sets beforehand.

He also teaches an introductory-biology course in which clicker questions and attendance constitute 20 percent of the grade. He assumes there is some cheating using the devices but leaves it up to students themselves to report abuse, since cheating can nullify hard, honest studying. "I can't spend all my energy trying to police cheating," he says.

Benjamin Surpless, an assistant professor at Trinity, has used clickers in his geoscience courses for the past five years and has encountered cheating throughout—even though clicker responses no longer count for credit. Although he tells that to his classes, "students think that there's some kind of grade attached to them," he says.

He teaches introductory classes of about 50 students and says he can tell when students aren't there. Now he uses the clickers to monitor students' understanding, guiding which concepts to review based on student responses.

Mr. Bruff, the clicker expert and a fan of the devices, says the concerns about cheating are not exaggerated: He sees students boasting about it on Twitter. "I saw one where a guy took a photo with his camera of the clickers he had on his desk—his and four of his friends'—and he was basically bragging about it." Mr. Bruff says he attends education-technology conferences throughout the country and is constantly asked how to curb abuse.

Certain situations lend themselves to wrongdoing, he says. "The larger the class size, the easier it is for students to get away with it, and so the more likely they are to do it." The way to deal with it is to keep the clicker stakes low and accountability for cheating high.

The 5% Principle

Low stakes, Mr. Bruff says, means that professors use clicker answers for 5 percent of the grade and no more. In his own courses, that level of incentive has raised attendance rates—real attendance, not clicker phantoms—by 20 percent. More important, he says, students in his class of 50 are participating and interacting on an individual level. That, he suggests, should be the primary reason for using the devices.

At Georgetown University, Matthew B. Hamilton, an associate professor of biology, adheres to the 5-percent limit. He also polices his students to see if they are using more than one clicker by having teaching assistants circulate the room during clicker quizzes.

And he, like Mr. Bruff, believes that the devices have real advantages. The interactivity of clickers outweighs the hassle of monitoring students and keeping of fresh batteries on hand, Mr. Hamilton says.

By specifically outlining for students how clicker cheating violates academic honor codes, Mr. Bruff says, universities can clarify the situation for students and bolster professors' positions. "The instructor can point to the honor code—the university has decided that this counts as cheating, so it's not just me being a tough guy. It's that this is commonly accepted as inappropriate," he says.

That kind of clarity works, says Mr. Duncan. At Boulder, the student-enforced honor code takes a strong stance against all forms of cheating. It's one reason that, since the first physics class he watched, he has used clickers for nearly a decade and has caught students cheating only twice.

"You need to make very, very clear with the students," he says, "what is considered legitimate."